3 families go off for a weekend away together at a beachside holiday villa on the Northern Iranian coast. The reason? Their newly divorced friend, Ahmad, is joining them from his home in Germany. Sepideh (played by “Body of Lies” Golshifteh Farahani) wants to set Ahmad up with the only other singleton on the trip, Elly, her daughter’s primary school teacher.
It becomes clear that the weekend becomes all about Elly. Her personality, her looks, her sense of humour, even her work ethic are all discussed and pored over by the 3 couples as they nudge Ahmad and Elly closer together. Sepideh’s match-making ways and the group’s claustrophobic encouragement make for an uncomfortable watch. It is no wonder that Elly takes a moment to herself to make a phonecall away from their prying eyes.
The movie shifts gears the next day when Elly disappears. The bonhomie of the group dissipates rapidly as they consider what could have happened to her. Did she go into the sea? Did she leave? Did someone attack her? After all, the landlady of the resort did warn them the beach was unsafe and to lock the villa’s gates. The couples all show strength in how they react to this unfolding mystery even as underlying tensions threaten to pick away at them all. Especially, as Sepideh’s husband Amir begins to think she knows more than she is letting on.
Suffice to say, I can say no more. The strength of this movie is in how the story unfolds and drip feeds you more information until the final scene. Free from tagged-on plot twists, Asghar Farhadi’s film benefits from a realistic dilemma played out truthfully by its talented ensemble cast in full until it reaches its conclusion. The film picked up a slew of nominations and awards in 2009 when it was first released and it is not surprising that Farhadi later went on to pick up the Best Foreign Language Film for his next film , “A Separation”, at this year’s Oscars.
Farhadi has been labelled a feminist director by other critics and a certain feminist sensibility is evident in his treatment of his female characters here. Golshifteh Farahani’s complex Sepideh ages before the viewer’s eyes as she shifts from confident, carefree matchmaker to a vacillating, guilt-ridden mess. Similarly, Taraneh Alidoosti does well in her brief scenes as Elly to suggest there is a depth to her character and that things may not be quite so uncomplicated for her as first thought. This allows the audience to speculate on her motives and state of mind even as the 3 couples do the same. How much do they know about her at all? Of the male cast members, Peyman Moadi (also from “A Separation”) and Shahab Hosseini’s Ahmad are also outstanding but really there is not a false note among any of the cast.
This movie is not without its flaws. Issues of pacing are present at times as the 3 couples have the same arguments over and over. Also, the issue of Elly’s honour is given a weight that can be difficult to understand, culturally speaking. And don’t get me started on the “bus station” issue. That being said, such criticisms are slight in the extreme as the positives far outweigh the negatives. This is intelligent, well-acted, well-plotted drama of the highest order. Anna Karenina’s recent adaptation was labelled emotionally unmoving. No such tags can apply here.
IN SHORT: First-rate ensemble acting in a gripping and haunting mystery. No easy answers here.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Go see it.